The morphological shift of the home in Covid-19

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By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

The ‘home’ is an unstable concept. Its visualisation differentiates greatly between the individual and societies and has been forcibly reconfigured and centralised by the Covid-19 pandemic due to lockdown measures. For many the home has become the centre for rest, work, and leisure coincidentally. For others it has become a densely-populated prison, a lonely cell, or no space at all due to homelessness, with Covid becoming the second biggest killer of homeless people in the UK.

Covid-19 has influenced an array of changes in consumption and production patterns in our exploration of new hobbies. It has brought challenges as well, ranging from personal finance to domestic abuse and mental malaise. Perhaps the home has and, indeed, should change permanently. The challenges must be taken into account by forward-thinking planners and architects to shape our primary dwellings and neighbourhoods in a way that is sustainable and prepares humanity for the predicted increase in frequency of epidemics and pandemics.

The ‘house’ and surrounding built environment are crucial for the preparedness and maintenance of the home during a pandemic scenario. The first and most obvious is housing density – the number of people allotted to one dwelling. There is great inequality in this regard, with ethnic minorities and people of lower socio-economic class more likely to live in densely-occupied housing, making social distancing harder. With 3% of households in England living in overcrowded accommodation (7% for the poorest fifth), this also leaves less space for work and privacy.

Secondly the quality of housing itself is, again, mired by inequality. A study of housing in Italy by D’Alessandro et al. found that 13.2% of the population lived in apartments with damp on the walls, with some 415,400 apartments without running water, 250,600 with no water heating, and 2,081,000 with no central heating. 11.4% of the apartments lacked balconies, terraces or gardens. In England around 18% of people lived in “non-decent homes”, which lacked modern facilities and thermal comfort, or were in a state of disrepair. This put occupants at higher risk of mental health issues or the coronavirus itself. This unveils poor government policy on housing transnationally – not enough is being done to protect the most vulnerable members of society by providing sufficient quantity of good quality housing.

Family and partner relations have become brutalised for many, with domestic abuse increasing 20% globally as a result of coexistence, economic instability, and fear. This is worsened by curtailed access to support services, and the fact that households receive fewer visitors, so domestic abuse may go unaccounted for. Connections can and should be made to broaden support structures to provide appropriate services for such victims. The issues of privacy and economic stability can be attenuated through providing families with sufficient housing size in the first instance, as well as providing greater financial stability through mechanisms such as the universal basic income.

The mental and physical health of the population is one of the foremost victims of Covid-19. The issues extend beyond domestic abuse victims, with studies suggesting that lockdown has contributed to the worsening of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, as well as mental issues such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. A lack of living space for hobbies, personal space, and privacy during work phone calls showed a clear correlation with moderate-severe and severe depressive symptoms developing. I previously wrote an article detailing the importance of access to green space and nature for mental health, which people, especially those of lower socio-economic class, do not have sufficient access to.

Experiences in the home during Covid-19 have not been wholly negative. Covid-19 has invited in novel discourses and an open challenge to established ideas. Perhaps the most pertinent is the inextricable entanglement of ‘life’ and ‘work’. For some, Covid-19 has brought respite from a gruelling commute, enabling them to spend more time with their families. Interestingly, a survey has shown that working from home may actually increase productivity, coinciding with the development in remote working and collaboration software such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. We are likely to see the conversation to remote working intensify post-Covid, with more people working from home on a part-time or permanent basis. Indeed, a survey by JLL showed a 60% increase in the number of people wanting to work one or more days from home each working week compared to pre-Covid, when 79% of respondents wanted to never work from home, or less than once per week.

Covid-19 has also driven changes in the consumption of culture and leisure activities. One notable area is online streaming services such as Netflix, which increased its subscription count 16 million by April 2020. Other activities such as home cooking, working out, and reading have become more popular. Potentially more insidious activities such as online gambling patterns have also changed. Many of these habits are likely to endure post-Covid, opening up new markets and changing consumption patterns.

Whilst the pandemic has caused ostensibly positive advancements in some areas, such as being closer to family or working from home, Covid-19 as a whole has had mainly negative effects on the global population (although this varies from country to country). Urban areas are set to account for 68% of the global population by 2050, and, because they are hubs for international commerce and migration flows, they are intrinsically hotbeds for viral incubation and transmission. This raises the question: What role do planners and architects play in building pandemic resilient homes and cities?

As cities become denser, housing will inevitably become more compact. Housing architects and interior designers must design flexible spaces for future work, leisure and family patterns, with emphasis placed on providing modular space and multi-use work surfaces. This includes innovative multi-functional furniture which occupies minimal space (examples). Secondly, to build resilience to viruses/bacteria, as well as thermal comfort, passive ventilation is crucial. A study by D’Alessandro et al., showed that mechanical measures such as air conditioning can increase the risk of infection. The idea of passive cooling in architecture is a mature concept, most notably utilised by the 20th century architect Le Corbusier. Passive cooling is intrinsically sustainable by focusing on heat retention and eliminating energy usage in mechanical solutions. This involves appropriate orientation of dwellings to ensure sufficient natural lighting (based on latitude). In a previous article I spoke about the need for responsive architecture designed around people and communities, many of the points made in this article stand for sustainable pandemic planning as well.

Housing and neighbourhoods need to become greener and provide more public space for social interactions and leisure. A study by Labib et al., found that just viewing greenery from a window can reduce stress and improve mental wellbeing. Part of this rubric therefore must include incorporating vegetation into interior design, gardens and balconies to perhaps provide “horticultural therapy” to alleviate mental distress and fatigue.

Access to food and food production in general is crucial in building resilience. In the first instance, a widespread mechanism for food delivery services will be implemented to ensure that individuals can maintain social distancing rules by reducing contact with non-family members. Considering the broader point of sustainable development, food security will become a major challenge in population centres. Localised food production and communal sourcing has historical precedence in nations such as the UK, addressing short falls and driving sustainability by eliminating CO2-intensive logistics and processing. Families need to be provided with the space, resources, and skills to turn gardens and balconies into spaces to grow food to minimise contact with others and improve self-sufficiency.

Moving away from the home, the role of the planner persists. To improve social distancing and enable people to exercise, more open space needs to be created. This ultimately means substantial morphological changes within the urban space. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo temporarily implemented pedestrianisation by closing selected streets within New York City for 11 days to provide necessary space. The absence of CO2-spewing cars, trucks and taxis resulted in a take-over by pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrianisation encourages alternative, sustainable forms of transport and supports community building as the street becoming a space for socialisation (outside of an epidemic/pandemic situation) rather than traffic.

Covid-19 is a tumultuous era in modern history. It has been devastating for societies globally. However, the opportunities it offers to reshape work, the home and our cities at large must not be taken for granted. This article intends to posit the start of something significantly bigger.

Header Image by Breno Assis on Unsplash

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